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Strengths Based Inclusive

By James R. Thompson, PhD All doctoral students and faculty in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas participate in specializations. The six specializations include the Strengths Based and Inclusive Approaches to the Education of Adolescents with Extensive and Pervasive Support Needs sequence of which I co-lead. I suspect that our specialization … Continue reading

Equity & Gifted Children: A Father’s Perspective

Dr. Donald Easton-Brooks, School of Education Dean at the University of South Dakota, shares his first-hand experience with the inequities gifted students and their families face.
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Save a Starfish and Rescue Yourself

By Barbara A. Kerr. Williamson Family Distinguished Professor of Counseling Psychology, University of Kansas (KU) School of Education.

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Teachers, you know the old story. A guy is walking along the beach where a tsunami has swept thousands of starfish ashore. He is throwing one starfish at a time back into the sea. Another guy walks up to him and says, “So many thousands of dying starfish. What do you accomplish by throwing one back in the sea? What does it matter?” The first guy says, as he throws another one, “Mattered to him.”

Sometimes, I am sure you feel like you are surrounded by struggling starfish. Decades of reduced funding, blaming teachers for students’ failure to meet test goals, and school closings mean that teachers, students, principals are demoralized by the long siege of the “reformers”. You’re tired of building seawalls against the tsunami… writing letters, organizing, going to meetings, speaking out… and I know that sometimes you just want to quit.

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Before you quit teaching, let me have a word. I want to implore you to save a starfish. I want to encourage you to find ONE creative kid. Wait – I heard your train of thought: Creative = gifted = elitism = one white kid from a middle-class family. Just stop. I’m not talking about that. Forget the labels and the complex identification procedures for gifted education that so often favor more privileged students who have been exposed to the kinds of experiences and opportunities that are often assessed as part of the formal processes for determining/labeling who is gifted who is not.

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Creative students who have potential to become innovators in the arts, sciences, social vocations and entrepreneurship are some of our most neglected students. Creative kids are everywhere. In fact, creativity knows no boundaries of race, class, gender, disability or any other category devised to divide us. For example, a number of great inventors came from low-income families that had to make do, to fix things, and to tinker with an engine or a recipe until a solution is found that works.  Some eminent women writers were considered at-risk.

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All kids are curious, engaged in their own learning adventures, and in love with ideas. It might be the girl or boy who reads alone at recess or insinuates his or herself into the basketball game, or spends more time drawing the four square court than playing the game. It might be the kid who doodles no matter what. It might be the kid who knows everything there is to know about videogames but doesn’t do his homework. Curiosity and creativity is part of human experience.  For some students, creativity trumps all other preoccupations.  Writing, building, coding, drawing, and emoting make school livable.

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Find that kid. Teachers are good at finding creative kids – yes, my research says so – look it up. (“Finding Tomorrow’s Innovators: Profiling Creative Adolescents”) Using your intuition and your knowledge will help you recognize the creative kids around you. You can look up our five categories of traits: Verbal and linguistic skills, mathematics and science, spatial and visual skills, interpersonal and emotional skills, and music and dance (Kerr & McKay, 2013).

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Photograph courtesy of Sorcha Hyland

I think you already know what a future inventor, artist, writer, or leader looks like. Curious, quirky, independent, single-minded, nonconforming, and sometimes a little weird – find that kid. Ask, “What are you drawing…that looks amazing!” “Tell me about that book you’re hiding in your lap. What’s it about? What do you like about it?” “How did you figure out how to make that – it works great!” That’s how the conversation starts. Then find out what he or she wants to know about that topic, and give the gift of knowledge. Slip her a book to read. Tell him where he can find an animation software program. Show him an article on Japanese cultural influences on early Nintendo games. Now keep the conversation going, every day. Share your enthusiasm for the student’s passions with the parents. Find a friend who knows something about that kid’s interest, and introduce that person to the family—that’s social capital. Look for after-school programs or a summer camp that fits, and find a local library, museum, or college where that child has never been – and get him or her there – that’s cultural capital. Find and raise scholarship money for those programs – that’s capital. Talk about careers, and help the kid develop their own agency to pursue their goals.  Finally, follow up, even after the school year is over. “What are you doing now? What’s your latest project? I’d love to see it!”

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Michael #145973. Inkjet print by artist Rick Ashley, 2014. Photographed on exhibit at the Smithsonian  American Art Museum, D.C.

Pretend you’re in the post-apocalyptic scenario that has seized the imagination of a generation, and find one kid to hold safely in your hands. Keep that child safe, shelter that child from the storm. One day, he or she will find, with your help, the creative community where ideas and new enterprises can thrive. Be an advocate for that creative child until that day comes when you can throw your starfish into the sheltering sea of like souls.

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Sherlock. Colored pencil illustration by Aoife Sidener, 2016. Age: 10 years. Grade: 5th.

Maybe you will discover what I did. When you find one kid, when you see her or him, when you authentically collaborate with one kid, you learn something about yourself. Perhaps you will re-awaken your love for teaching. Perhaps you awaken your own curiosity and passion for learning and new ideas. When we acknowledge the mysterious human gifts of exploration and creation in others, we find it in ourselves. To rescue starfish is to rescue ourselves.

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Alison Bechdel. Charcoal, mixed media and 3-D collage by Riva Lehrer, 2011. Photographed on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, D.C. 

References

Kerr, B. A., & McKay, R. (2014). Smart girls in the 21st century: Understanding talented girls and women. Tucson AZ: Great Potential Press.

Kerr, B. A., Cohn, S. J. (2001). Smart boys: Talent, manhood and the search for meaning. Scottsdale AZ: Great Potential Press.

Kerr, B. & McKay, R., (2013). Searching for tomorrow’s innovators: Profiling creative adolescents. Creativity Research Journal, 25(1). 21-32. DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2013.752180

Bio

Barbara Kerr, Ph.D. holds an endowed chair as Distinguished Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Kansas and is an American Psychological Association Fellow. Her M.A. from the Ohio State University and her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri are both in counseling psychology. Her research has focused on the development of talent, creativity, and optimal states, while training psychologists and counselors to be talent scouts who provide positive, strengths-based services. She founded the Guidance Laboratory for Gifted and Talented at the University of Nebraska; was Associate Director of the Belin-Blank National Center for Gifted and Talented at the University of Iowa; and co-director of the National Science Foundation projects for talented at risk girls at Arizona State University. She is editor of the recent Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent Development, and author of Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness; A Handbook for Counseling Gifted and Talented; co-author of Smart Boys: Talent, Masculinity, and the Search for Meaning, Counseling Girls and Women and over one hundred articles, chapters, and papers in the area of giftedness, talent, and creativity. She currently directs the Counseling Laboratory for the Exploration of Optimal States (CLEOS) at the University of Kansas, a research through service program that identifies and guides creative adolescents. With Karen Multon, she has co-directed the NSF Project, Milestones and Danger Zones for STEM Women. Barbara Kerr specializes in optimal human development and positive psychology, counseling of gifted and creative people, gender issues in counseling, and spirituality. Web site: http://cleos.ku.edu/

Charter Schools, Race, And Ability Have A Sticky Relationship

By Federico R. Waitoller 

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Let’s talk about charter schools, disability and race. Three topics that tend to be discussed separately, but they stick together like bread, peanut butter, and jelly. Ok, here is a warning; I am going to start with a jargony sentence, but I promise that by the end of the blog it won’t be so jargony. Here is my sentence. First, read it, take a minute to digest it, and then continue reading it. Are you ready?

Charter schools are an ability and racial project associated to the production of urban space.

To illustrate this jargony sentence, let me share with you a quote from a participant from a recent research project that I conducted in Chicago with Black and Latinx parents of students with disabilities who experienced conflicts with charter schools. Her name was Janet, a Black parent of a student identified with Autism living in a Black segregated neighborhood that had being impacted by extreme poverty since the 1970s, and also by school instability due to school closings, including turnaround schools (see Figures 1 and 2).

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Figure 1. Location of charter and magnet schools in the city of Chicago 2013-2014, school closings from 2000 to 2015, and distribution of Black population (Waitoller & Super, 2017).

Janet, had a history of poor experiences with neighborhood schools. Before enrolling in the charter school, her son attended to two turnaround schools in where the constant turnover of personnel affected the delivery of special education services received by her son. After these experiences, Janet felt without school options. “I just was being failed by all of these schools out there. The charter was our last resort,” she said.

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Figure 2. Community typologies and location of charter and magnet schools and school closed 2000-2015 (Waitoller & Super, 2017).

Once in the charter school, her son received uncountable disciplinary sanctions, including numerous suspensions. When reflecting about her experiences in the charter school Janet shared with me,

Race has a lot to do with it because I feel like they just automatically assume, “Well, since you’re black, you’re poor, you come from a broken home, you’re a single parent, and your child has problems because of that.  Not because of his disabilities, his routines, his environment at school.  Well, because he’s adopted, he’s black, you’re black, this is a black area, and those are your problems.  That’s why your kid is actin’ up, so let us just fix him.  We’ll get him right.  We’ll have him like a robot in no time if you just calm down and let us, and it’ll be better that way.  We’re gonna push him.” They go off of—they taught my son chants and songs that he’s going to college every day.  I don’t have a problem with that.  I do want him to go to college, but I feel like it was kind of a brain washing mechanism that they’re using with these kids, like black people are down here and poor, and white people go to college and they’re up here.  I have a bachelor’s degree. You’re a poverty stricken black family and let us show you what you can do to improve everything in your life, your child’s.” Comin’ into these areas, these neighborhoods, and puttin’ up these—factories is a good analogy, and your kids are the product.  It’s all about numbers.  “Well, Miss Baker, calm down because our stats say it’s working.”  “Your child is an exception, and we’ll whip him into shape.”

Wow! Do you need to read it again? Please do so.

Lets unpack this quote together, shall we?

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Illustration by Gary Hovland. Sourced from the United Federation of Teachers article, Together But Unequal. By Dorothy Callaci (2017).

Janet perceived charter schools as saviors coming to Black areas to “fix” Black student so that they can get to College. By the way, Janet’s son was in early elementary grades. The deficit discourse about black communities is clear-cut. Indeed, the large majority of charter schools in urban areas market themselves as beacons of academic and disciplinary rigor and a path to college for low-income students. Offering flashy educational opportunities for families that had far to few, if any.  A brochure from an elementary charter school in Chicago stated its how as, “how to best support our students as they grow and prepare to compete with their peers in college preparatory high schools and four-year colleges, ambitiously pursue career opportunities.” Charter schools target specifically certain areas of the city of Chicago affected by gentrification or by poverty and school closures (see maps in Figures 1 and 2). They become a “spatial fix” for the kinds of neighborhood in which Janet’s leave. They are associated to process of urban space and economic development. On the one hand by trying to revive certain area of the city that are prime for real state investment and in the other hand by producing subjects (mostly black students) that are disciplined and trained to contribute to the market economy.

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Of course, there is nothing wrong with preparing students for college. That is not my point, nor was it Janet’s point. The problem is the paternalistic and deficit discourse about black communities. This deficit discourse had material consequences. The charter school employed a combination of mechanisms that were exclusionary and resulted in pushing Janet and her son away from the school: the school that she considered her last school option.

These mechanism included a combination of (a) denying certain services that Janet son had in his IEP, (b) applying a strict disciplinary and academic code that did not account for Janet’s son disability, (c) having inexperienced and untrained teachers, and (d) explicitly suggesting her to move her son to another schools in where he could receive better services. If students could not perform in such inflexible, non-supportive, and normalizing environment, they were weeded out or suggested to leave. This was the case of Janet’s son.

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DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education. Connor, D. J., Ferri, B. A., & Annamma, S. A. (Eds.). (2016). Teachers College Press. 

In Janet’s family’s case, race and disability intersected in two ways. On the one hand, by dis/abling race through negative and racist attitudes toward black children, the charter schools positioned themselves as saviors that came to “Whip children into shape” so that they can become productive subjects and attend to college, and ultimately contribute to a market economy. On the other hand, by racializing disability, the academic and disciplinary practices of charter schools positioned black children as dis/able and incapable to succeed in an environment that was never designed with them in mind.

If charter schools are to become a solution to educational inequities, they should not be excluding any student. Otherwise, charter schools are like and old wine in a new bottle. Old forms of exclusion based on racism and ableism are now renewed and mutated under the banner of school choice. Exclusive spaces come to replace exclusive spaces.

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Racial segregation in many charter schools isn’t far from the Civil Rights-era levels that these Chicagoans protested (Kartemquin). Photo sourced from In These Times: Charter Schools May Be Re-Segregating America’s Education System by David Sirota (2012). 

So, can charter schools become inclusive rather than exclusive? I mean not a just a few exemplary cases, but all of them or at least the vast majority. Otherwise, they are not options for parents who live in spaces where those schools do not exist. And, even if those schools are an option for parents like Janet, do we want students of color to attend such paternalistic, meritocratic, and punishing spaces? Do these spaces have communities of color best interests or what purpose do they serve?  Whose cultural, political, and economic values informed charter schools’ practices?

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I think even when regulated and in their best form, charter schools will struggle to deliver their promises of equitable inclusive education. First, market responses to educational inequities present services for particular students, or we also may say particular identities. They are selective by design. In order to market themselves, charter schools have distinct missions that differentiate them from other schools. They have a particular market niche (e.g., disciplining student of color in areas perceived as unsafe and marginalized). Their teaching practices represent such missions, as in the case of Janet. Their goals are not to be inclusive but exclusive to certain kinds of students.

charter-school-protest-Second, the problem of market of responses to inequities such as charter schools is that they address students with disabilities and other underserved populations in paradoxical terms. They are commodities that are desirable but also disposable. That is, on the one hand, these students signal new opportunities for market expansion and commodification (e.g., charter schools economically benefit from enrolling students). Students with dis/abilities, particular those of color, are understood as eternally lacking and in constant need of new commodities (a charter school education) to be individuals that contribute to the market economy. Charter schools offer the services to whip these students into shape and the promises of being included in the market economy.  On the other hand, students with disabilities are perceived as threats to the “ideal individual” that contributes to the market economies (i.e., productive, independent, disciplined, and self-entrepreneur) and therefore, they are a threat to the core identity of the charter school and need to be disciplined, fixed, and normalized. Otherwise, they need to be pushed away.

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To end, I want to go back to our starting phrase; Charter schools are an ability and racial project associated to the production of urban space. That is, charter schools are located in urban spaces occupied by black (also Latino families) families that have suffer years of poverty due to neglect and disinvestment or in spaces that are seen as prime for real state development (i.e., gentrification). After various poor educational experiences, Black and Latinx parents that I interviewed living in such spaces were lured by the promises of charter schools: a safe space in unsafe neighborhoods and the so coveted access to college. Once in the charter school, however, they experience new forms of exclusion at the intersections of race and disability. In the end, the charter school promises vanished, and parents found themselves again looking for another school in an educational market that treats them as disposable.  Charter schools, race, and ability have a sticky relationship.

About the Author

Federico Waitoller

Dr. Waitoller is an assistant professor in the department of special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses on urban inclusive education. In particular, he examines how neoliberal informed polices, such as top-down accountability, portfolio district models, and school choice converge with inclusive education efforts, and how these initiatives affect Black and Latinx students with dis/abilities. His research also examines teacher learning efforts and pedagogies for inclusive education.

He can be contacted at fwaitoll@uic.edu. His work can be followed at Academia.edu and at Research Gate. You can also follow Federico in Twitter at @waitollerf.

 

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

When I enrolled in my first college class as a special education major in the Fall semester of 1978, it was with both the excitement of a pioneering adventure and apprehension of the enormity of the task.  Excitement because only a few years earlier (1975) the landmark Public Law 94-142 had been passed and the field of special education was growing in leaps and bounds.

Picture1Apprehension because—well, because there was so much to do.  PL 94-142—now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—opened the school doors for literally thousands upon thousands of children and youth with disabilities who, prior to that Act, were denied a free public education in most places in the country. I began my teaching career in 1980 and throughout that decade can remember adolescents coming to school for the first time in their lives.

In 2015, I had the privilege of speaking at the U.S. Department of Education’s celebration of the 40th Anniversary of IDEA.  It was a time to reflect, to admire the journey, to celebrate the progress, and to take stock of what remained to be done.  In other words, it was a time of excitement to celebrate the impact of that landmark Act, and a time of apprehension about  the enormity of the task that remained.  Yes, there was much accomplished in that 40-year span, and we must not take for granted what has been achieved nor forget those who worked so hard to get us to this point.  Yet, there is still much to be done.  Picture2Students with disabilities are still too often segregated from their peers without disabilities. Special education remains, in the minds of too many, a place to which students are sent, rather than specially-designed instruction. Students with disabilities are held to low expectations and IEPs still too often reflect student deficits and not their strengths.

On July 1 of this year, I had the honor of becoming the chair of the KU Department of Special Education.  I do so with a sense of both—well, you guessed it, excitement and anticipation.  Excitement for the innovations that will result from the research, teaching, and service from our internationlly-renowned faculty.  Picture3Excitement for the opportunity to interact with world-class doctoral and graduate students.  Excitement for the growth of the highest quality online graduate programs in the country.  Excitement for the opportunity to work with alumni who are changing the field and friends of the department who support our efforts.  Excitement to work with teachers and administrators and students in schools across Kansas, the U.S. and, indeed, the world.  We are uniquely positioned to lead the field into whatever is next. In fact, it is what we do… we lead the field in new directions.  Dr. Elizabeth Kozleski has provided exceptional leadership to the department and we are stronger as a result.   Anticipation?  Well, we are not the same faculty I joined in 2001.  Many of those pioneers have retired and started new adventures.  We, as a faculty, need to create our own identity, forge our own path, and build on the legacy that we have inherited.  The challenges are, in some way, more difficult.  The easy problems in education have been solved, what are left require partnerships, creative thinking, and elbow grease.  And yet… there are few, if any, departments better situated to take on these tasks:  To generate the next big idea that changes how students with disabilities are educated;  to train the next generation of leaders in research and practice; to influence policy that leads to full citizenship for all.  It is what we do… we lead the field in new directions.  I look forward to working with you in whatever role you have in our department as we start this part of the department’s journey.

Rock Chalk!

Picture4Michael L. Wehmeyer, Ph.D., is the Ross and Marianna Beach Distinguished Professor in Special Education and the chairperson in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas.  He is also Director and Senior Scientist for the Beach Center on Disabilty at KU.

 

Elephants, American Indians, and the Circus

 

Elephants, American Indians, and the Circus

by LeAnne Howe

My mother collected elephants, bronze, ceramic, silver, large and small urns shaped like elephants, and even a belt with the silver images of marching elephants.  After she died in 2003, my brother and I were going through her things and dividing the mementos that we each wanted to keep.  I chose her elephant collection.  Today the yellow, or gray, or silver elephants of all shapes and sizes rest in various places nooks and crannies in the house that has been passed down from my grandmother, to my mother and now me.

Until I began the research for my novel Mike Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (Aunt Lute Books, 2007) set in Ada, and later research for our new play, Side Show Freaks and Circus Injuns, co-authored with Monique Mojica, I had no idea why my mother was drawn to elephants.  But it seems that circuses and elephants loomed large in the minds of American Indians in southeastern Oklahoma, and certainly in my mother’s imagination.  Small and intermediate-sized circuses began coming to Ada, Indian Territory, as early as the 1890s.  The Ada Weekly News began writing about the circus in Ada in 1904.

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photo by LeAnne Howe

When circuses came to Ada, they always parked in Daggs Prairie about six blocks from my grandmother’s house.  My mother and my great aunt Euda and their friends would always sneak in the backside of the circus tents and watch the elephant, tiger and bears that were part of the circus acts.  Sometime around 1929 my great aunt Euda joined the circus, and she traveled all over the world as a circus performer.  Euda was only a few years older than my mother, and the two looked like sisters and remained very close until their deaths.

Enter Sideshow Freaks and Circus Injuns

Over the past seven years I’ve been working with indigenous actress and playwright Monique Mojica, and others on an indigenous research project for our 70-minute play about mounds, mound building and theatrical performance.  Both Monique and I had family members that were in the circuses.  Our play involves developing new Indigenous performance models based dramaturgically on Indigenous cultural texts: earthworks. Indian Mounds were built by layering different kinds of soils one upon the other. As Indigenous playwrights Monique and I will employ the deep structure of earthworks as dramaturgical models. Our soil layering will be represented in the stories we “layer in the play” with circus acts and our two principle characters, Panther Girl and Invisible Woman. We began our research at mound sites by asking a simple question: How do Natives embody the lands of their origin? To help with our research we talked with tribal elders and residents in Native communities in close proximity to mounds, and we visited mound sites from Canada to Louisiana, and read historical documents.

What we found was that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern circuses parked on mound sites.  Why mound sites is a little unclear, but one guess is because the sites were ready made for the circus tent.  I’ve since wondered if my great aunt Euda had played Indian on any of these mounds sites.

The Western Hemisphere is populated with mounds and earthworks in various ages from the Archaic, Early Woodland, Middle Woodland, and late Woodland/Mississippian periods. In the Southeast some of the great mound cities are Poverty Point (Louisiana), Moundville (Alabama), Nanih Waiya (Mississippi), and Okmulgee (Georgia). Other earthworks known as Hopewell era sites are located across Ohio and the Ohio Valley. At one time, hundreds of thousands of mounds, including embankments, conical mounds, platform mounds, and effigy mounds, dotted Indigenous North America, beginning as early as 4000 BCE. The very name “Turtle Island” connotes a vast effigy mound rising out of the water.

In studying mounds as Indigenous literatures, we asked other questions. Are the earthworks embodied mnemonics aligned with moon and sun rotations to show future generations of Natives when and where to converge at specific sites? Another indication of the return motif.  One thing is certain, the circus always returned to Ada to perform for two weeks at a time, as if following in the footsteps of indigenous people who designed “return elements” via cosmic alignments at all these mound sites in Native north America.

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photo by LeAnne Howe

Today at Hugo, Oklahoma, located within the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is Showmen’s Rest, Circus Cemetery for all the “showmen under God’s big top.” Indeed, it’s a graveyard of circus performers of ages past. You will note the elephant statues that graces the graves of past circus performers. Hugo, the second oldest Choctaw town in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, has been a “popular winter headquarters for traveling circuses, earning the nickname “Circus Town, USA,” according to Hugo’s website.

In finding out so much of the history of the circus that came to town and enticed my family members to join it has been a joy and a sorrow.  A joy because they were brave people to uproot themselves.  A sorrow because I should have asked more questions when my mom was alive: “Why did you collect elephants, Mama?”  In writing this play, I think I’ve found the answer.  But I’m sure there is more to the story.

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photo by LeAnne Howe

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photo by LeAnne Howe

LeAnne Howe is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She writes fiction, poetry, screenplays, creative non-fiction, plays and scholarship that primarily deal with American Indian and Native American experiences.

Her first novel Shell Shaker (Aunt Lute Books, 2001) received an American Book Award in 2002 from the Before Columbus Foundation. The novel was a finalist for the 2003 Oklahoma Book Award, and awarded Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year, 2002. Equinoxes Rouge, the French translation, was the 2004 finalist for Prix Medici Estranger, one of France’s top literary awards. Evidence of Red (Salt Publishing, UK, 2005) won the Oklahoma Book Award for poetry in 2006, and the Wordcraft Circle Award for 2006. Her most recent novel is Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (Aunt Lute Books, 2007). Her latest two books Choctalking On Other Realities (Aunt Lute Books), a memoir, and Seeing Red Pixeled Skins, American Indians and Film (Michigan State University Press), a co-edited anthology of film reviews were both published in 2013. She is the Eidson Distinguished Professor of American Literature in the English Department at the University of Georgia, Athens. She is available for readings and lectures at colleges and universities.

She is now working on an Irish Choctaw Chapbook with Irish poets Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Padraig Kirwan about the 1847 Choctaw gift to the Irish for famine relief.

Lean in and Listen: Shaping Inclusive Schools With Youth

Lean in and Listen: Shaping Inclusive Schools With Youth

As a special education professor, I often reflect on how much my time as a teacher continues to shape my research. My last few years of teaching were in an inclusive classroom in a predominantly Latinx[1] community where my co-teacher and I worked together to try to figure out what it meant to create an inclusive classroom. We knew it was more than just having students with disabilities in the general education classroom, so we worked together to plan lessons and implement co-teaching structures while we figured out how to create classroom communities attuned to histories of exclusion (i.e., disability and racial) while drawing on students’ interests and experiences. Our efforts to create inclusive learning communities took many different shapes while simultaneously navigating the complexities of the classroom. Yet, one practice in particular has carried over from pedagogy to research method to help me think about equity and inclusion—listening deeply to what youth have to say.

I was fortunate to teach in a dual language school that provided me with wonderful mentorship that emphasized attention to language and cultural differences. My teacher colleagues (and friends) Carmen and Silvia brought the assets-based pedagogies I had read about through the work of scholars such as Guadalupe Valdés (1996) along with Norma González, Luis Moll, and Kathy Amanti (2005) to life every day in their classrooms; always pointing out what students could do and countering deficit-narratives with counter-narratives. I repeatedly saw that the source of their assets-based understandings was rooted in paying attention to the youth. Watching them confer with individual students was like watching two people sit at a table solving the mysteries of the world with deep intensity. I knew something special was happening in those classrooms, so I followed suit in the practice of listening deeply to youth.pexels-photo-256430Sarah Hudelson and Karen Smith, professors that gave their time to work alongside me and other teachers in the classroom, deepened my understanding of listening in the context of literacy instruction. They taught me to put writing skills on the back burner and to first respond to the human then to the scholar, which is more easily said than done, in a room hustling and busting with students. Yet, it made a world of difference for “struggling” writers and youth who had seldom had their literacies affirmed. Thalia[2], a seventh grade student, is my constant reminder of why listening matters. Thalia was frequently absent, so when she was at school I was often in a hurry to catch her up. On one of these catch-up days, she willingly sat down and joined her classmates in drafting a memoir. Towards the end of class, not knowing if she would be back the next day, I pulled her aside to confer on her writing. Thalia sat with me and showed me her paper. No punctuation, no capitalization, but words filled the page as if they had been poured there. As Thalia began reading her memoir, I moved my burning desire to address her first sentence needing capitalization and punctuation to the back burner, and instead I just listened. In return, those words poured onto her page lifted and began to weave a story about a quiet early morning when she caught her father leaving the house before everyone else awoke. Thalia felt lucky that morning as the child that got to join dad on an early morning errand. Her story transitioned to sitting in the doctor’s office lobby; her head leaning on her father’s shoulder as she dozed in and out of sleep. Thalia awoke to her father telling her that the doctor said he had cancer.

I remain deeply appreciative that Thalia and I had that moment together, but I am also very aware that I could have easily missed that moment had I not prioritized listening. What if I would have stopped her at the first sentence to point out needing a capital letter or a punctuation mark? What if I would have stopped her halfway through the page thinking this was a random morning with her father instead of understanding how powerfully she turned the mundane into one of the most important moments in her life? What if I never understood why Thalia’s life outside of school was understandably taking priority over her year? Instead, Thalia allowed herself to be fully vulnerable at school and in return she was heard, and that moment sits in me like an anchor. Thalia and I were able to also discuss using capitalization and punctuation as tools to make sure people were reading and understanding her story the way she intended, and she eagerly used those tools. But more importantly, Thalia shared a story with me and I responded to that story with the human reactions that it deserved. Thalia is my constant reminder to listen deeply to youth as human beings first, because being heard is a critical part of creating inclusive spaces where youth can more accurately narrate their experiences.

college-1897048_1920As a researcher, I now draw on research methods that allow youth to narrate their experiences and understandings while adding complexity to the adults’ understandings of educational issues. Many schools and researchers are invested in creating more equitable and inclusive schools through a range of foci and at different levels of the educational system (i.e., practice, policy, research, community; see Kozleski & Smith, 2009; Kozleski & Thorius, 2013) but oftentimes those understandings are limited when they do not include youth perspectives. This is why I have turned to collaborative research methods as a viable means of centering youth perspectives and contributing new visions of equitable and inclusive schools.

I have most recently been able to push my own understandings of equity inclusion through an interdisciplinary research project with my colleagues Mel Bertrand and Sybil Durand using Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) methods (see Bertrand, Durand & Gonzalez, 2017; Gonzalez & Bertrand, 2017). We have been able to engage in collaborative research with youth at a school site to better understand and take action on the inequities youth feel impact their educational experiences. In the spring of 2015, we started a YPAR after-school club open to all seventh and eighth grade students, while purposefully inviting students with learning classifications that have historically resulted in inequitable participation and outcomes (e.g., youth with disabilities, youth classified as English language learners, indigenous youth).

Adults at this school were committed to advancing equity and inclusion by implementing project-based learning as a school-wide initiative. While this curricular goal was an important step toward creating more equitable learning opportunities, it was also missing the perspectives of youth. During the 2015-2016 academic year, the YPAR youth identified internalized racism as an equity issue impacting their educational experiences and developed research questions and data collection tools to further study the issue. They interviewed peers, teachers, and community members to better understand where people learned about their racial and cultural histories, where they thought it should be taught, and the role schools should play. They also surveyed 120 of their peers on this same topic, and found that their peers were not learning about their racial and cultural histories at school but thought that they should. and findings to an audience of their teachers, administrators, and parents with a call to action for the school to include their racial and cultural identities and histories as part of the curriculum. The youth offered the adults a missing piece to their school change efforts, and youth-centered perspective of equity and inclusion. (For other examples of how other researchers are using YPAR, click here and here.)

boy-1986107_1920As schools and researchers commit to pursuing equity and inclusion, it is critical to also ask whose notions of equity and inclusion are shaping the work and whose are missing? What opportunities do youth have to collaborate and contribute missing and sometimes opposing notions of equity? How can adults restructure their school change efforts to include youth? In what ways are youth afforded opportunities to represent their own educational experiences and take part in improving them? Youth are well aware of many of many of the inequities that limit them in school. We can learn a lot from youth about creating more equitable and inclusive schools if we lean in and listen deeply to them.

[1] Latinx is used to refer to people with Latin American roots without using the gender binaries that accompany “Latino” and “Latina.”

[2] Pseudonym used to protect privacy

 

References

Bertrand, M., Durand, E. B., & Gonzalez, T. (2017). “We’re trying to take action”: Transformative agency, role re-mediation, and the complexities of youth participatory action. Equity & Excellence in Education, 50(2).

Gonzalez, T. & Bertrand, M. (2017). Youth advancing equity and inclusion: The role of after school spaces in school change in Advancing educational opportunities through inclusive education: Community based research in special education. Symposium paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Antonio, TX.

González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Albingdon: Routledge.

Kozleski, E. B., & Smith, A. (2009). The complexities of systems change in creating equity for students with disabilities in urban schools. Urban Education44(4), 427-451.

Kozleski, E. B., & Thorius, K. K. (Eds.). (2013). Ability, equity, and culture: Sustaining inclusive urban education reform. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Valdés, G. (1996). Con respeto. Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools: An ethnographic portrait. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Taucia Gonzalez_headshot_close up

Taucia Gonzalez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. Her program of research, grounded in equity and inclusion for culturally and linguistically diverse learners, is twofold focusing on 1) opportunities for Dual Language Learners (DLLs) with learning disabilities (LDs) to learn in inclusive literacy communities and 2) preparing teachers to work at the intersection of language and ability differences. Dr. Gonzalez’s work bridges general and special education and has been featured in journals such as the Journal of Multilingual Research and the European Journal of Special Needs Education. She currently serves as an advisory board member for the Wisconsin Education Research Advisory Council. Dr. Gonzalez has spent over 15 years working with Latinx communities as an educator and educational researcher. While teaching in urban dual language schools she was honored as an exemplary Latina educator with the Chicanos por la Causa Esperanza Award.

 

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